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Vilamoura's dream comes true as Carla waits in the wings

16 March 2000According to Carlos Cardoso, a columnist with the Portuguese sports' newspaper A Bola but also a long time member of the IAAF's Cross Country and Road Running Committee, this weekend's activities in Vilamoura mark the realisation of a 23 year-old dream. Back in 1977, the first ever edition of the Amendoeiras (Almond Blossom) Cross Country race took place in Vilamoura, on grass and sandy trails near the Atlantic coast of the south eastern corner of the country. This initiative, which came from a partnership of the Portuguese Athletic Federation, the Region of Faro and Portugal's Commission of Tourism aimed to develop not only athletics but the tourism that was beginning to thrive in the Algarve. The Almond Blossom may have had humble beginnings, but it came to have enormous influence on the development of Portuguese cross country and athletics in general.

As the Almond Blossom developed in terms of results, technical organisation, and above all international relations to become one of the most famous cross country races in the world, so did Portuguese athletics. New horizons beckoned and higher levels of performance and organisation came to be expected.

By 1985, when Lisbon hosted the World Cross Country Championships, Portugal's legendary Carlos Lopes was in his prime. He won the title in Lisbon (and on two other occasions) a year after becoming Olympic marathon champion. By this time, athletics and running in particular, had become a real passion in Portugal and helped generations of stars like Rosa Mota, the Castro brothers, Antonio Pinto, Paulo Guerra, Manuela Machado, Fernanda Ribeiro,and most recently Rui Silva and Carla Sacramento become world class.

And now, Carla Sacramento hopes to become the first runner to win a World Cross Country title on home soil since 1992.

She is her country's best bet for success, aiming to become the latest in a long line of Portuguese runner to excel at the discipline of cross country running.

"I've prepared well this winter. I feel strong and have just concentrated on running cross country rather than mixing it with competing indoors," Sacramento said. "I could have done some indoor races but I decided at the start of the winter that this was the one event I wanted to focus on. It's in my home country and on a course that suits me," she added.

She has surprised everyone by notching up a several victories at major cross country races, including becoming the Portuguese champion earlier this month. But she does not feel any pressure to succeed in front of her home fans.

"Perhaps it's because most people do not think of me as a cross country runner. In the past I have only done it as a way of getting stronger for the track in the summer. People know that it is not my event normally."

Her sentiments though are a far cry from three years ago when she left Portugal, her family live on the outskirts of the capital Lisbon, and moved to Madrid.

Primarily the reasons given for her move to Spain was that is was a better place for her to train -- she is lives near the Spanish National Sports Institute in the Spanish capital and uses its facilities.

But, in the wake of her gold-medal winning run in Athens, she is more than happy to admit now that the pressure from the Portuguese media and public was becoming overwhelming.

Much of the attention focused on the fact that, although she was born in Lisbon, her family originally come from the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique.

In winning the world crown, she had become Portugal's most famous sports star of Mozambican descent since the soccer player Eusebio.

Now I think of Portugal as my mother, and Spain as my father, so I guess there'll have to be celebrations in both countries if I win," she laughed.

Sacramento was part of teams that took the bronze medals in the 1989 junior women's race and finished in the same position in the senior race the following year.

In 1994 she was part of the winning Portuguese women's team in the days before long and short cross country races.

However, Sacramento is the first to admit that she hardly contributed to their triumph that day in Budapest, being a non-scorer and coming home in 73rd place!

The disappointing experience dampened her enthusiasm for cross country and she has only run once more since at the world championships.

"But this year is different. It would be good for me, good for my country, if I do well," she said.